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May 4, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 18
The Orwellian President: Vietnam is the struggle
By David McReynolds
I have, for some time, been bothered by the degree to which my father and Nixon seem alike. I love my father and, while I do not hate Nixon, I certainly do not love him. Still, they were so much alike, men possessed of a certain loneliness, a certain distance from others, conservative in politics and religion, satisfied by little music or theatre, passionate about sports, and both with a certain personal rigidity about the changing times in which they live.
It was only in watching Nixon on April 26 — ironically, my father’s 69th birthday — that I sensed the difference between them. Nixon is what my father might have become if my father had been a failure.
Somehow, after a life that began in poverty, and included grinding work and all the rest, he won through to a remarkably contented and even joyous middle age. Nixon, on the other hand, sits rotting in his various houses of state, Camp David, San Clemente, the White House.
Some years ago, when my father had returned to California from the wars, we were in our local Baptist church listening to a traveling evangelist. My father had been involved deeply in the war, attached to the command that developed the B-29s that finally dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. He had been on the first combat flight of the B-29s when they did a “test bombing” over Rangoon. (If I remember correctly, he had painted the names of myself and my brother and sister on the bombs.)
And so, the war behind him, he sat and listened to the preacher tell those men in the audience who had served that if they had taken lives they should not feel it had been a sin, for the state had issued the orders and they had only obeyed. After the service my father collared the preacher and nearly shook him by the neck, saying “Don’t you dare tell me I am not guilty of a sin. Don’t you ever, ever try to shift the blame from me to the ‘state,’ for each man is responsible for his own actions and my actions were sinful. But I didn’t know how to avoid that sin, how else to protect my family and country except by war. It is only the grace of the Lord that can ever grant me forgiveness for doing what I knew was wrong and yet did not know how to avoid.”
It was, of course, a long time ago and another country, and I was only a child, yet that demand for honesty was part of my background and one of the reasons I can sense that Nixon is neither an honorable nor a compassionate man. He is of us, yet he belongs to a future we must seek to avoid. He is Orwell’s dream come early to our shores, an intruder we have ourselves raised up.
It may be argued this is too personal a basis for getting at Nixon, yet one moves from the particular to the general, and if Nixon, as it will shortly turn out, is not the real enemy, yet we shall get to that enemy by moving down this road.
Nixon on tv on April 26 was a bad version of Big Brother, again underestimating the Archie Bunkers of the land. He will lose the election because he was never willing to trust the people. I call Orwell as my witness in looking at some of Nixon’s remarkable statements on that tv show.
Let us skip over his allegation he had “refrained from responding militarily” to the enemy build-up, and not, dwell long on his statement that “we patiently contented with the Paris talks” — I assume people know our air attacks on North Vietnam had been increasing long before the current Vietnam offensive, and that Nixon unilaterally broke off the talks before that offensive began. What is more fascinating is Nixon’s obsession with the concept of “invasion.” I quote him: “What we are witnessing here, what is being brutally inflicted upon the people of South Vietnam, is a clear case of naked and unprovoked aggression across an international border. There’s only one word for it: invasion.” And, in fact, Nixon is quite right.
Vietnamese cannot invade Vietnam. One part of Vietnam may attack another, and in the course of a civil war that certainly happens and has been happening in Vietnam. But one simply cannot talk about this terrible struggle as being an invasion across international borders without crossing another border, a literary one, into the dark pages of “1984.”
But of course there is an invasion “being brutally inflicted upon the people of South Vietnam unprovoked aggression across an international border” — and we are the invaders. Our men have now fought in Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam — and are heavily bombing North Vietnam. There are no Russian or Chinese troops fighting anywhere in Indochina. One may defend the merits, the necessity, or even the morality of our invasion, but it mocks the English language to deny it and strains credulity to attribute the invasion of Vietnam to the Vietnamese.
Nixon returned to this theme when he said, “If one country armed with the most modern weapons by major powers can invade another nation and succeed in conquering it, other countries will be encouraged to do exactly the same thing…” The implication is that Russia and China have fueled the struggle. The fact is that between them they have given Hanoi less than 10 per cent of the military aid we have lavished on Saigon.
There is a genuine Orwellian madness about the Nixon administration. We, this country, invade a nation 10,000 miles from our shores, smash its major cities, poison vast areas of its farmlands, defoliate its forests, kill more than a million of its people, create several millions of refugees, and then come on tv and blandly state that an invasion is under way!
Nixon spoke of his quest for peace, saying we had done everything possible except that “the only thing we have refused to do is accede to the enemy’s demand to overthrow the lawfully constituted government of South Vietnam and to impose a Communist dictatorship in its place.” This is vintage Nixon, lacking only a “perfectly clear,” for he packed two direct lies into a single sentence. The Saigon government is not — and never has been — “lawfully constituted.” And the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) has never demanded that Nixon “overthrow” Thieu. They have asked only that he withdraw support from him. They have never demanded that we impose a Communist dictatorship. They have asked us to permit the formation of a “government of reconciliation” which would include the PRG and would then hold free elections.
Nixon gave three reasons for his air attacks on Vietnam, reasons that quite literally defy all reason. First, he was sending aircraft North in order to protect our remaining forces in the South. How does bombing Hanoi save American lives in Danang? Why not use the planes to fly the men out? Second, he bombed in order to “permit continuation of our withdrawal program.” This is incomprehensible. Only in 1984 could a political leader argue that he was escalating the war in order to speed his withdrawal. The third reason for the bombing contradicts the first two. It was “to prevent the imposition of a Communist regime on the people of South Vietnam against their will, with the inevitable bloodbath that would follow for hundreds of thousands…” Now if Nixon believes such a bloodbath is coming (as if the Vietnamese had the technical skill to create a greater bloodbath than we have already done), then why are we leaving? Why isn’t Nixon asking William Buckley to organize a Freedom Brigade of volunteers to go and save the Vietnamese? We are, it seems, bombing to protect our men as they get out so the Vietnamese can face, without us, a bloodbath Nixon is sure will come.
But the more crucial issue, one brought sharply into focus by the current fighting, is not Nixon but what lies behind Nixon, and what lies ahead for us. Because Nixon is trapped by the system, just as Johnson before him, and it is not really Nixon who wages the war, though he is willing to lie on its behalf, but the military-corporate complex.
The Vietnamese objectives in this war are simple. They have never changed, and can be summarized with extreme brevity. The Vietnamese want control over their own country, they want it unified, they want it socialist. (I do not refer, obviously, to all Vietnamese, but to the historic force of Vietnamese nationalism under Communist leadership.) They have never been puppets of Moscow or Peking. They do not want to invade Thailand, or Burma, or the Philippines, or anywhere else. They want, simply enough, to control their own country. The war will continue either until they achieve this objective or until almost all of them are killed.
Our own objectives are much more complex. There is no doubt, for example, that if the establishment could turn back the clock they would never have gone into Vietnam at all. It has become largely by accident, one of the great battlegrounds of history, and like most battles it was entered upon with confusion.
We had hoped to contain China and backed the French to achieve this. When the French gave way we could have contained China by backing Ho Chi Minh — the parallel with Tito is obvious and probably sound. But Dulles was haunted more by Munich than by a clear awareness of the growing complexity of the Communist world, and under Eisenhower we tried to create, with Diem, a secure anti-Communist base similar to South Korea. It was a modest effort, limited in funds and advisers. And it failed. Stage three was the huge build-up of our own armed forces under Johnson. That vast American presence would almost certainly still be there today if it had not been for the tremendous domestic furor the Johnson war policy created. Nixon moved to phase four, with U.S. air and naval forces trying to supplement the million-man army of South Vietnam. Nixon is not actually withdrawing — what he takes out in ground troops he is putting back in aircraft and naval forces.
I am not Kissinger and I do not claim to have a complete grasp of world politics, but I grasp them well enough that it has taken me 10 years to understand the Indochina war. Which is not really a paradox. I knew from the beginning that in geopolitical, economic, and military terms Vietnam has never been worth the candle, and therefore I have been expecting that others, equally aware of these realities, would terminate the war. They would terminate it not because it was wrong or cruel or illegal (it was, of course, all of those things) but because it served no basic American interest.
For this reason I thought Johnson would end the “mini-war” when he beat Goldwater. And I thought Nixon would end what had become a “maxi-war” upon taking office. But he did not and instead risks his career rather than close down this operation. Why did both men act so irrationally?
At last I realize that I understood much but not enough. The Vietnamese fight for remarkably simple reasons — they either fight or they will pass again under foreign rule. But we are no longer fighting to contain China — Nixon now walks the Great Wall and toasts his hosts with quotes from Chairman Mao. We are fighting because the system got itself tangled, rather against plan, in a great contest between the economic hegemony of the West and the struggle of the Third World to run their own nations and their own economies.
Vietnam is the edge of an enormous struggle of the American military-corporate state to maintain its hold in the world as a whole, and if it loses in Vietnam, the signal goes out everywhere, to Africans, Latin Americans, others in Asia, that the giant can be beaten if only the people fight hard and long enough. A victorious Vietnam would become a beacon not only of struggle but of victory, with shock waves felt everywhere we still hold power. Therefore it is pointless to suggest that the particular ground upon which we fight is not meaningful to our national security, because it long since ceased to be that territory but has become the struggle itself. If Nixon could somehow lose Vietnam and win the struggle, he would gladly do so, but that is impossible.
It has produced, this war, a similar struggle in our own nation, one between the establishment an vast, almost incoherent forces of change and reform. Vietnam has educated large numbers of white middle-class Americans to the fact that the war is no mistake but flows from the nature of our system. The young move increasingly toward some sense of socialism as an alternative way of organizing society. The older generation loses its faith in the American system now that the cost of that system in human suffering is written in blood for the world to see. If we — McGovern, the young student strikers, the C.O.s in prison — can win against the Pentagon, then we can win on other things. Vietnam is not the only issue, it is not even the most important issue, but it has become the issue. If the American people cannot beat the Pentagon on this question, we can win on nothing at all.
Yet once more, the movement is being asked to back away from the struggle, being paternally warned we won’t succeed and will only irritate Nixon an then who knows what he might do? The fact — tragic and grim — is that it is only struggle that has brought us this far, and only a defeat of the American power structure will open the door to a real change in our foreign policy and make possible new alignments for massive domestic change.
I wish very much the Vietnamese were using the methods of Gandhi, methods I believe would have worked, but I understand that whether their resistance is non-violent or violent, it is only the fact of their resistance which prevented, long ago, the creation of a secure military dictatorship in Saigon, client state to the United States.
In New York people have two chances for strong action to let the establishment know that when Nixon says “we will not be defeated and we will never surrender” our job is to force that defeat and that surrender. We do not seek a victory for Communism but a victory against the unlimited power of the Pentagon. All of us must echo Nixon’s statement that “we will not be defeated and we will never surrender” — but with our own meaning. The peace movement, using non-violence, will not abandon the field. We will continue on every level, demonstrations and elections, until in fact Nixon has lost. For we understand that one side or the other must be defeated. Either Nixon and the military-corporate complex, or the American people. And so, this Thursday, May 4, we can only pray for tens of thousands to peacefully assemble in Foley Square at noon, a mute but powerful answer to Nixon’s speech of April 26. We — intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals and Archie Bunkers — all of us, in defense of the best in the past of this nation, and in defense of a future we can still create, will not surrender.
And on May 10 who will join us at the ITT Building at 51st and Park as we stage a “simulated bombing” of a midtown area? Who will risk arrest with us, or if they cannot do that, hand out leaflets legally, play guerrilla theatre, falling “dead” from the paper bombs? Join us and thank God the struggle here can be waged without guns, can be waged non-violently on the streets and at the ballot. But it is a struggle we must wage. Until we win that struggle we have not yet begun to win back our nation.
May 4. May 10. Join us.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]